Nets goes all out to find the next big sitcom

The sitcom is dying.

There’s no denying it anymore. Take a look at the fall schedule: Fox has a paltry two live-action laffers in primetime; ABC, just one. One-time sitcom king NBC has been reduced to one night for several years now. The CW doesn’t even have a comedy department.

And if it ain’t quite dead yet — yes, there are a handful of bright spots, “30 Rock” fans — then the form has at least been on life support for the better part of a decade. It’s not getting any better.

Before you toss out that cliched retort — “Hey, everyone said that comedy was dead in the ’80s, and then ‘The Cosby Show’ came along” — read on.

The year before “Cosby” bowed, the three nets aired 24 primetime half-hour comedies. If comedy was near death then, it’s fully six-feet under these days. As fall 2008 commences, the Big Four nets have just 12 live-action laffers between them. It’s gotten to the point that networks are branding light one-hour series as comedies to get around the fact that there just aren’t enough half-hours out there.

In other words, “Cosby” treated a cough. Today’s comedic savior needs to cure a terminal disease. It ain’t gonna happen, so perhaps it’s time to pull the plug.

Changing the way comedy is approached at the nets could be its salvation. And once the pressure’s off to revive the form, perhaps the networks can finally reinvent it.

After spending the last decade attempting to revive the comedy corpse, net execs are wising up to that opportunity. At the TV Critics Assn. press tour last week, execs revealed several encouraging signs that they’re ready to do things differently.

“A lot of confidence has left the creative space on a day-to-day basis,” Fox Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly said at the confab. “I see really talented people coming in very skittish, not knowing what to pitch, what will sell.”

Reilly plans to hand out seed money to scribes in order to shoot their own digital shorts. Those YouTube-style videos could then be incorporated into pitches and give everyone involved a better handle on what kind of comedy they’re tackling.

The exec also plans to move its comedy pitches outside of Fox’s office, in order to juice creativity by heading to the writers’ turf, be it their homes or a restaurant.

“We’ve got to do anything to mix it up,” he said.

FX, meanwhile, is taking a leap and ordering 39 more episodes (plus the 13 currently in the works) of cult fave “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Cabler hopes to use the show to launch low-budget companion laffers, several of which remain in development. First up: “Testees,” from scribe Kenny Hotz.

Over at ABC, entertainment prexy Steve McPherson says he hopes to expand the world of comedy development to cast a wider net for ideas, much like what’s already done on the drama side. Where dramas are sometimes based on books or other unconventional means, comedies are almost uniformly created by comedy writers.

“We need more great points of view; it’s not just about creating a great sitcom,” he says. ” ‘Samantha Who?’ has a great POV and talent at the center of it.”

Already, change is in the air. ABC has brought over “Scrubs” in the hopes that it can jumpstart its comedy franchise on the back of the critically acclaimed workhorse. CBS is experimenting with a single-camera comedy on Mondays, “Worst Week,” that’s unlike any other half-hour on its air. And NBC is standing by the smart half-hour “30 Rock,” even though its ratings may have warranted cancellation long ago.

Later this year, TV’s animation ranks — one of the few comedic bright spots, thanks to Fox’s Sunday vets — will expand as the Alphabet net adds “The Goode Family,” while Fox rolls out “The Cleveland Show” and “Sit Down Shut Up” (although production delays may push those last two into next season).

Long term, nets and studios may also want to consider altering the way in which comedies are written and produced. U.K. critical darlings like Ricky Gervais’ “The Office” benefited from short orders and a singular vision. And animated shows take advantage of the genre’s long lead times (necessary for production), which allow scribes to take more passes at a script than their live-action brethren.

“You get kind of a gift as a writer, which is to write something you’re very close to and forget about it for two or three months, and then watch it again with fresh eyes,” says “Cleveland” exec producer Rich Appel, who has toiled on both animated and live-action shows. “It’s not like you shoot it on tape-night or you have five days on a single camera comedy and you’re stuck for better or for worse with what you have.”

Now here’s the hopeful part: Comedy is still doing just fine, be it Judd Apatow movies, viral videos, “The Colbert Report” or the “Flight of the Conchords” CD. The sitcom as we know it may be gone, but the nets haven’t given up on its rebirth.

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